Early in his stardom, George Clooney figured out how to convey both a grateful amusement at his own good luck and good looks, and a serious awareness of the power he's got while the going is good. That's also how he became a walking American character ideal, with a responsible carbon footprint and a villa in Italy. Clooney appears to be a guy who knows how not to sweat the small stuff, while making his commitment to big stuff look really exciting: Michael Clayton, Syriana, Good Night, and Good Luck; humanitarian activism in Darfur; nontraditional, energy-saving automobiles. But when he takes on comic, Rat Pack-y projects that overtly tweak his own marketable suaveness O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Ocean's Eleven through Thirteen something vexing happens. That's when this coolest of cats looks like he's trying too hard.
Reproducing a period-piece screwball comedy for a modern audience turns out to be one playful, self-deprecating wink too many for the star, who also directed Leatherheads with what may have been only vague awareness going in of just how difficult it is to control the speed and bounce of a successful screwball trajectory. In this slowest of ostensibly madcap romps, Clooney strains at the chin strap as Dodge Connolly, an athletic scrapper at play, on the field and off. Leatherheads is set during the early days of pro football circa 1925, before big money and damn rules changed and, the movie argues, ruined the game. (The script is credited to former Sports Illustrated writers Duncan Brantley and Rick Reilly pros at covering college football, but not so much at screenwriting. Since the first draft, dating back to the early 1990s, a lot of hands have touched the ball, among them Clooney's own.)
Dodge loves a playful brawl, a snoot full of drink, and a great dame. And the dame he's got his eye on is Lexie Littleton (Renée Zellweger), a snappy news hen from the His Girl Friday school of gal reporters, with a nifty wardrobe in shades of red. Lexie, meanwhile, has her investigative eye on Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski), a straight-arrow college football hero with an impossibly noble WWI record, recently recruited by Dodge to boost spectator numbers for his struggling pro team, the Duluth Bulldogs. While she sniffs out inconsistencies in Carter's battlefield stories, this tough honey also finds herself attracted to the big fellow. Why not? It's Krasinski's irresistible Jim Halpert from The Office, redux, with a bonus of athletic prowess.
And so Leatherheads plays out in a sequence of romantic rivalries, on-field scuffles, backroom maneuvers (many of them involving Jonathan Pryce as Carter's slick sports agent), chastely sexy moments of flirtation, and wacky digressions meant to simulate the mechanics of the original '30s and '40s comedies by George Cukor, Lewis Milestone, and Howard Hawks to which Leatherheads doffs its helmet. Reportedly, Clooney himself really pushed for more spring to the screwball quotient the better, perhaps, to play off that bon-vivant, guy-among-guys, smoothie-among-women persona he has established so comfortably.
But he never gets that bounce. The dialogue drags no matter how fast Clooney and Zellweger rattle off their he-said-she-said lines in a studious imitation of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. Zellweger is a physical match for the showier spitfire hats in which she's framed, but she's a personality mismatch for the role of a career-girl toughie who thrives on brainy banter with the boys. She seems stranded here, a bruisable actor who has wandered, as she sometimes does, into the wrong role and the wrong era for her idiosyncratic talents. (Lexie, in a railway sleeping car, where the two are unwitting bunkmates: ''So you want to play dirty?'' Dodge: ''Maybe later, I'm a little tired right now.'') Clooney, in contrast, just seems grimly determined to pretend to be jazzed by Zellweger's tense interpretation of banter, to pretend to be having a grand time, to get through the movie.
Under the circumstances, the collegial bond between Clooney and Krasinski is a relief from so much strained jocularity. Both exceptionally likable personalities, both beholden to TV for their seasoning, the natural ease between the pair hints at what Leatherheads could have been had Clooney the filmmaker not tried so hard to re-create a specialty genre rooted in so psychologically different an American time. And had Clooney the star not tried so unnecessarily hard to convince his already convinced fans that his fame and fortune are just the luck of the game. C